What is the Personal Injury Statute of Limitations in California?

The California personal injury statute of limitations sets a strictly-enforced time limit on your legal right to have your injury claim heard in the state's civil court system.

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

If you're thinking about filing a personal injury lawsuit in California -- whether over a car accident, a slip and fall, or any other incident where someone else's negligence caused you harm -- it's crucial to understand and comply with the statute of limitations for these kinds of cases. Read on for the details on the filing deadline set by this California law, why it's so important, and when the deadline might be extended.

Two Years is the Standard Time Limit for California Personal Injury Lawsuits

California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1 gives you two years, starting from the date of the underlying accident or incident, to file a civil lawsuit seeking a legal remedy (compensation) for "injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another." That includes almost all conceivable types of personal injury lawsuits, since most are governed by the liability principle of "negligence" (a term that is interchangeable with "neglect" as it‘s used in section 335.1).

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

If you try to file a personal injury lawsuit after more than two years have passed since the underlying accident or incident, it's a near-certainty that the defendant (the person you're suing) will point this fact out to the court, and the court will summarily dismiss your case. If that happens, you''ll have lost your right to seek damages for your injuries, no matter how significant they might be, and no matter how clear the defendant's liability, unless you are entitled to an extension of the statute of limitations under a rare exception (more details on these exceptions in the next section).

It's important to note that the California personal injury statute of limitations isn't just a factor if you've decided to take your injury case to court via a formal lawsuit. The filing deadline set by this law is also crucial to your position in personal injury settlement negotiations with the defendant and his or her insurance company. And if the two-year deadline set by the statute of limitations has passed, then it goes without saying that you'll have lost all your leverage. After all, "I'll see you in court" is the very definition of an empty threat if the other side knows that your filing a lawsuit is now a procedural impossibility.

Exceptions to the California Personal Injury Statute of Limitations

California has identified a variety of different factual scenarios that might serve to delay the running of the statute of limitations "clock," or pause the clock after it has started to run, effectively extending the two-year filing deadline set by section 335.1.

Here are some examples of circumstances that are likely to modify the standard two-year timeline for the filing of a personal injury lawsuit in California:

  • the injured person did not discover, and was not aware of any facts that would have caused a reasonable person to suspect, that he or she had suffered harm caused by someone else's wrongful conduct (this is known as the "delayed discovery" rule).
  • the injured person was under the age of 18 or was "lacking the legal capacity to make decisions" (i.e. subject to a temporary or permanent mental illness) at the time of the underlying accident (California Code of Civil Procedure section 352), and
  • the person who allegedly caused the injury (the defendant) left the state of California at some point after the underlying accident, and before the lawsuit could be filed (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351).

If you have questions about how California's statute of limitations applies to your potential personal injury lawsuit -- especially if the deadline has passed or is looming -- it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced California personal injury attorney.

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